The largest microscope in Spain is on the Cerdanyola del Vallés campus of the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Seen from the air it looks futuristic and attractive, like some kind of flying saucer or a giant steel donut. The interior seems more prosaic, like that of a circular industrial warehouse with its scaffolding and machinery indecipherable to the uninitiated. But appearances are deceiving.
The Alba Synchrotron, as it is known, is a particle accelerator not unlike the LHC in Geneva, with which the Higgs boson was discovered. The industrial warehouse is actually a tremendously sophisticated space in which "two-ton machinery moves with a precision of microns," explains Joan Casas, Alba's head of engineering. These teams aim to accelerate electrons to a speed close to the speed of light. To achieve this, it is necessary to place them in a circular duct through which they are accelerated following a curved trajectory to which they are pushed by the magnets that surround the circuit. The objective of this enormous paraphernalia is the production of extremely fine beams of high-intensity X-rays capable of penetrating matter without damaging it to illuminate its interior and unravel its secrets.
Synchrotron radiation was first observed in a General Electric accelerator in the USA in 1947. It was then considered a drawback, because it caused the particles to lose energy. However, in the sixties its possibilities as a high intensity X-ray generator were discovered. Today, these types of machines are in demand by scientists from all disciplines, from materials science to biology. In Alba, built with an investment of 200 million euros contributed by the Catalan Generalitat and the State, scientists who want to test their hypotheses under the light of its rays must go through a commission that judges their merit.
To know, for example, the way in which pathogens attack cells, it is essential to know their structure and how they fit together. Knowing the shape of this puzzle, it is possible to design drugs that work as a piece that serves to block the fit of the pathogen and its harmful effect. “First, we can study the structure of a protein, and then ligands are added, such as a drug or other molecules to see how they interact with the protein”, explains Jordi Juanhuix, head of the Xaloc X-ray crystallography line “ Sometimes we see that one part joins and another does not, and that makes it easier for there to be a redesign of that molecule," he adds.
Synchrotrons such as Alba have exceptionally reduced the time required to obtain information on the structure of biomolecules. When the structure of DNA was discovered in the 1950s thanks to X-rays, it took hours or days to obtain the information. Now a crystal can be analyzed in two minutes. Afterwards, yes, the researchers can spend days, months or even years working on the information that the synchrotron provided them in such a short time.
With one of the Alba lines, the Mistral, it has been possible to make the first three-dimensional map of cells infected by the hepatitis C virus. In other lines, with a light of different characteristics, the composition of the materials is tested with which batteries are made to improve their efficiency.
The Spanish synchrotron is the largest scientific infrastructure in the country. For Caterina Biscari, director of Alba, having a machine of this caliber is essential for the country to be competitive in the scientific field and have better economic prospects. In his opinion, the existence of another similar but larger accelerator such as the ESRF in Grenoble, in which Spain also participates as an associated country, does not exclude the value of the Spanish machine but rather increases it, because it makes Spanish researchers more competitive. on the European accelerator.
For the moment, Alba has operated at half throttle. Approved in 2002 and built during the years of economic boom, between 2006 and 2010, it was designed to house up to 32 light lines, but so far only seven have been commissioned. During the years of crisis, the operating budget of 15.5 million euros per year has been maintained, but there has been no possibility for the infrastructure to grow at the rate initially planned. Now, there are two more lines under construction that would come into operation over the next few years. With these figures, the scientists who require this type of infrastructure in Spain, some 1,200, have come to quadruple Alba's ability to satisfy them with their requests. For Biscari, "we must be aware that even if there is an economic crisis, we must invest more in science" and that "it is necessary to be able to do top-level science in Spain", because "that is what defines the progress of the youth and society.
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